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ART SEEN - Chagall - The Breakthrough Years, at the Kunstmuseum

ART SEEN // Art & Culture // Oct. 16, 2017

Uli Van Neyghem is a local artist and art reviewer. 

This week she joins us to review the Kunstmuseum's excellent collection of Marc Chagall paintings in their exhibition; Chagall - The Breakthrough years 1911-1919.


What:                        Chagall - The Breakthrough Years 1911-1919
Where:                      Kunstmuseum Basel, St. Alban Graben 20. Basel
When:                       Now until 21 January 2018
Opening Times:      Tuesday-Sunday: 10:00 - 18:00, Thursday: 10:00 - 20:00
Entry Fee:                 Adults: CHF 26 (Children <12 are free, Children 13-19: CHF 8, Students CHF 10)
                                   Audio Guide:  CHF 5 (highly recommended)

CHAGALL 1911 - 1919: Turbulent years
The temporary exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel covers less than a decade in the life of the Russian artist. Still, the creative period was indeed chosen wisely, as they were violently turbulent and decisive years, not only for Chagall, but also for the rest of the world. These years covered the First World War and also the Russian Revolution.

The collection begins with the period as Chagall leaves home; trading in the Yiddish 'Schtetl' in Vitebsk of his childhood, for the Parisian metropolis, with just a small grant awarded to him by a Russian sponsor. The exhibition gives insights into the world Chagall left behind and his homesickness evident in his paintings. "The Yellow Room", depicts his parents' home at the day of his departure: the furniture rocking, his mother's head upside down on the body and an open door leading to a new future.

  • The Yellow Room

The 3 years that followed in Paris were spent at the center of the artistic avant-garde and proved enormous stimulus for the development of his artistic vision. In his paintings he increasingly combined memories from his provincial life in Russia with fragments of his life Paris. Echoes of Russian folk-art are just as present as stylistic experiments that he was exposed to through his association with the city's most progressive artists like Picasso or the Delauneys. 


Chagall experimented with emerging new styles such as Cubism in those years, but to him, reducing anything he depicted to mere geometry felt like a constraint and not like the true liberation he was looking for. Although he admired 'the eye' of the French painters, his revolutionary spirit did not want to adopt their formalism.

His colourful, unconventional style caught the attention of German galerist Herwarth Walden, who offered the young artist his first solo exhibition in Berlin. It turned out to be a great success and Chagall's breakthrough. Finally he was able to return to Russia to reunite and marry his bride Bella, with the intention to bring her back to Paris with him.


The outbreak of World War I however, took him by surprise and forced him to stay. One painting shows a tiny Chagall sitting at a window, a gigantic ticking clock taking centre stage, impressively showing this frustration with being stuck. The paintings he created in the years to come speak of the hardships of the war. The colours turn more sober and faces are haggard and tired. Also due to lack of material, works from this period include a lot of black and white paintings on paper. 

The Kunstmuseum Basel for the first time unites the '4 great Rabbis', which have never before been shown as a complete ensemble. These portraits of elderly beggars stem from real life encounters and depict uprooted, expelled jews, who due to work bans, are forced to beg for a living. The motif of a beggar with a sack reappears in many of Chagall's paintings, reflecting a sad reality affecting much of Russia's Jewish population of the time. 

Perfectly rounding up the experience, the exhibition shows a collection of historic photography by Solomon Yudovin (a contemporary and acquaintance of Chagall), documenting life in Jiddish 'Schtetl', showing the surroundings that had such lasting influence on Chagall's work: a world endangered and subsequently destroyed by political turmoil.
During the years back in Russia, Chagall continues to successfully work on his career and participates in exhibitions in Moscow and St-Petersburg, earning the recognition of art critics. Wealthy collectors started to buy his art. 

The October Revolution of 1917 was a dangerous time for Chagall but also offered new opportunities. His free, revolutionary spirit welcomed the uprising and experienced it as a liberation, especially as the new government took the long-awaited step of granting the Jewish population full legal rights.  By then he was one of Russia's most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, for which he enjoyed special privileges and prestige as the "aesthetic arm of the revolution". He accepted a job as commissar of arts for Vitebsk and founded the Vitebsk Arts College, which became the most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union. 

The exhibition shows Chagall's designs for the celebration of the first anniversary of the October Revolution and concludes with 'The Fallen Angel', a painting showing Chagall's disillusionment with the Revolution. Created after returning to Paris and having witnessed pillaging by the Bolshevist police force Cheka and confiscation of Jewish property, he turns his back on the Bolshevist rule.  

Thanks to the personal friendship between former Kunstmuseum director Georg Schmidt and Marc Chagall, a relationship later intensified by the fact that Schmidt's successor, Franz Meyer married Ida, Chagall's only daughter, the museum already disposes of an impressive collection of Chagall's work. For this unusual, intense exhibition however, the Kunstmuseum brought together paintings from private collections and high ranking museums in Russia, Frankfurt, Paris, New York and many more, putting the relatively high admission fee into perspective.  



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